Burgers, with a side of history

A Burbank-area writer serves up origins of 'the perfect burger' in his debut book.

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You'll laugh. You'll find out how not to cry when handling onions.

And you'll learn a lot more than you ever expected in a book about how to make what Walla Walla County author Erik D. Walker calls his "perfect" hamburger.

Such are his vignettes on the origins of America's favorite sandwich -- from the time of 12th Century central Asia's Ghengis Kahn, to its getting its name from a pounded beef popular in Hamburg, Germany, to a first mention of the meat treat in a Walla Walla County newspaper in 1889, to its first gaining of mass popularity in the United States at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

Such Internet-researched digressions in Walker's first commercial book, "In Pursuit of the Perfect Burger," make what otherwise would be an index-card recipe a fun, interesting read.

Along with burger history, it's packed with side orders of information. Such as: the onion chemistry that triggers tears (a friend of Walker's wears swim goggles when chopping them); when humans first dared to eat a tomato (once thought to be poisonous); and the origins of ketchup and mustard (credit the Romans for the latter).

Written in a very conversational tone -- Walker concedes proofreading was the hardest part -- the self-published book is available on Kindle at www.amazon.com for $2.99 and in print for $7.99.

For Walker, 40, who lives with wife Tina on a 10-acre ranch outside Burbank near Ice Harbor Dam, the book is the result of a lightning bolt of an idea that hit him after he was grilling burgers one afternoon at a family gathering. Words flowed, he said, and before long he had thousands, with more begging for pages.

"It just kind of kept getting more interesting the more research I did," he said. "Once I started, I thought that if I'm going to do this I'm going to pick it apart -- the history of it and the detail about the ingredients, where onions started and the chemistry about what makes you tear up."

Walker's own history goes back to growing up in the Seattle area, where his family fired up the grill most weekends. He said he wrote a book when he was 12, and until penning "Pursuit" he mostly dabbled in short stories, poetry and photography.

As a young man he had a falling out with society -- to the point where it seemed like a pretty good idea to live in the woods for more than two years in the central Cascades outside of Granite Falls. It's where he perfected cooking over a wood fire pit, the only means he had to prepare meals and how he recommends his perfect burger be cooked.

"In my younger days I was anti-social, anti-work, anti-whatever," he says. "I could be happy to live in a tent and come into town for a couple of days of work. And that's what I did."

He said he could get by making $35 a day and living on the cheapest Top Ramen "or whatever," and "every once in a while stop by the parents' house to see what's in the fridge."

And then one day he figured he'd had enough of that life.

"OK, I've done this, now I think it's time to go back," he said. "It was almost like a 'Forrest Gump' moment -- OK, I'm done running."

Back in Puget Sound civilization, he entered the working world and met and married Tina, a Hawaii-born woman who grew up on Oahu. They moved to Kennewick, but the country life beckoned and they found what would become Walkers Ranch, complete with a home bar they call the Rusty Nail Saloon.

"I had sort of a five-year plan for saving money and what we wanted in a home to buy," he said. "Tina heard about the property from her sister. It was abandoned, nothing but the house and just ridiculous tumbleweeds and who knows what else. I saw that vision of what it could be and just fell in love with it."

His vision is one of "agritainment," which includes raising farm animals and having a vegetable garden. Still to come, he says, is a miniature golf course he wants to open, simply because he loves to play and there isn't one in Walla Walla County.

His perfect burger evolved over time as well.

"It's pretty much a basic burger, but there's stuff in it like the oyster sauce," he said. "One night my wife was cooking whatever she could find in the fridge. She made a meatloaf and added oyster sauce just to finish off the bottle. It was just incredible."

There's also bacon, with which Walker has had a lifelong love affair, and none of what he calls "foo-foo" gourmet ingredients that can't be found in most supermarkets.

He agrees he can get carried away with experimentation in his continued quest for Perfect Burger Nirvana -- a reason he says his wife handles most of the everyday cooking.

"When I cook she always looks at me sideways and says, 'What did you put in this?' "

To be sure, Walker is no J. Wellington Wimpy, the hamburger addict in "Popeye" comics. He and Tina chow down on perfect burgers only about once a month, he said.

"The perfect burger is not an everyday burger," he said. "It takes a lot of extra time to prepare. It's not something you'd do all the time. The process of creating it is just as fun as eating it."

But with slabs of beef, bacon and cheese stacked on just-the-right-sized bun along with a number of other ingredients and variations thereof, what does he tell people who think he's created a cholesterol bomb?

Here he shows the mark of any good author, one who isn't going to cave in to personal criticism.

"Tough beans," Walker said. "It's not something you eat every day. If you want the most perfect burger you've got to bite the bullet and take in a few calories."

And as if experiencing another "Forrest Gump" moment, that's all he's going to say about that.

Thomas P. Skeen is the Walla Walla Valley Weekly editor. He can be reached at tomskeen@wwub.com or 526-8320.

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